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    Thursday, August 12, 2004

    Book: Hand To Mouth, by Paul Auster (1997)

    We’re all friends here, right? I picked up this book, subtitled A Chronicle of Early Failure, to feel better about myself. It never hurts to read about the struggles of a writer you admire. I also assumed Auster’s background would reassure me about my own. A New Yorker who writes literary fiction? No Hemingwayesque exploits for him, I figured.

    Then I get to the section where Auster ships out on a freighter. Later he’s hired to translate the North Vietnamese constitution. Damn it. There must be some way I can spin my common straw into gold. Don’t let anybody kid you; being a movie theater usher is hard work. And I wrote phone sex ads for a while, too. I could tell you some stories. Not that you’d want to hear them.

    Auster boldly deals with the question of money, dropping precise figures. How much he has, how much he needs, how much he’ll settle for. But the original hardcover edition of the book is even more daring, in that it includes samples of his work from the period. (The 2003 paperback is only the opening memoir.) There are three plays in the style of Samuel Beckett that frankly didn’t do anything for me. And yet within them are the seeds of the ideas that Auster would explore more fully in his New York Trilogy as well as THE MUSIC OF CHANCE.

    Also here is SQUEEZE PLAY, a 1978 mystery novel published under the name Paul Benjamin. It’s a pastiche, but an engaging one; Auster’s a sure hand with a wisecrack. The plot turns around a clever twist that Auster gives away in his memoir, which takes some of the fun out of it. Not that more ammunition is required in this particular battle, but here’s Auster on novelists of the American hard-boiled school:

    “I had developed an admiration for some of the practitioners of the genre. The best ones were humble, no-nonsense writers who not only had more to say about American life than most so-called serious writers, but often seemed to write smarter, crisper sentences as well.”

    The third appendix is the most fascinating. At his lowest ebb, Auster became obsessed with selling a card game he’d invented called ‘Action Baseball’ to toy manufacturers. He’s ruthless in detailing this episode of his life; he knows that his chances are slim, but that only drives his desperation. Included in the book are the game’s rules and a sample deck of cards. I don’t know why it didn’t sell. It looks like fun.

    Music: Ultimate Manilow

    We’re all still friends here, right? Rosemarie got me this CD because I have an unfortunate tendency to belt out Barry’s ‘Ready to Take a Chance Again.’ The sad truth is if you say ‘The Last Waltz’ to me, my first thought will not be The Band but Engelbert Humperdinck. I’d call myself a lounge lizard, but you have to go out more than I do to qualify.

    Not every track on the disc is a winner. I still think ‘I Write the Songs’ sounds like it was composed for the opening ceremonies of the Goodwill Games. But Manilow is an accomplished craftsman who’s not afraid of key changes and genuine emotion. Even the hard-hearted Joe Queenan found love for Barry in his book about the worst in American pop culture, RED LOBSTER, WHITE TRASH & THE BLUE LAGOON. Yes, ‘Could It Be Magic?’ and ‘Weekend in New England’ are pure, uncut schmaltz. But if you don’t feel something stirring within you when Barry goes deep, you’re dead inside.

    Miscellaneous: Overheard

    “With Halliburton and all those companies owning everything, we’re getting closer and closer to that movie ROLLERBALL.”


    Is that the James Caan 'Rollerball' or the Chris Klein 'Rollerball'? Just wondering...


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